Maes Howe

The gently rolling landscape of the Orkney Islands, north of mainland Scotland, is home to a wealth of prehistoric monuments, few more impressive than the great passage tomb at Maes Howe. Probably built around 3000 b.c.e., it is the largest of its type in Scotland. Its dome-shaped mound is estimated to have been some 38 meters (125 feet) across and about eight meters (26 feet) high, and its huge central chamber, cruciform in shape and over 4.5 meters (15 feet) across in each direction, was probably more than 4 meters (13 feet) high originally. This was reached via a low passage over 15 meters (50 feet) long, which enters the mound from the southwest.

The passage at Maes Howe is aligned so that the light of the setting sun on the shortest day of the year shines along its entire length and onto the back wall of the main chamber. However, this solstitial alignment is far from exact. A similar phenomenon occurs daily from more than a month before the solstice until more than a month after it, and the same would have been true in prehistory. In fact, a most impressive light phenomenon occurs about twenty-one days (twenty-two to twenty-three days when the tomb was built) before and after the solstice. On these days the sun, having set behind the top of Ward Hill, on the adjacent island of Hoy, reappears briefly to the side of the hill a few minutes later, suddenly striking the back of the chamber for a second time.

Archaeologist Euan MacKie has argued that the tomb was not poorly aligned upon the solstice but very precisely aligned upon the sun's setting position twenty-two or twenty-three days before and after it. These dates, argued MacKie, were significant because they represented "epoch dates" in a calendar that divided the year into exactly sixteen equal parts of (on average) 22.8 days each. The existence of such a calendar in Neolithic Britain had been argued by the engineer Alexander Thom on the basis of a variety of supposed alignments at different megalithic monuments. However, it has subsequently been shown that if the data are selected fairly, there is no convincing evidence to support it. This fact, quite apart from a number of other

Maes Howe passage tomb, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Behind the tomb are the hills of Hoy, which the entrance of the tomb faces. (Adam Woolfitt/Corbis)

arguments, undermines the calendrical interpretation of Maes Howe.

On the other hand, it remains possible that the imprecise solstitial alignment was deliberate, and comparisons have inevitably been made between Maes Howe and the Irish passage tomb of Newgrange, which is also aligned upon the midwinter solstitial sun, though at sunrise rather than sunset. However, Maes Howe lacks anything like the famous "roof-box" that distinguishes Newgrange, and which allowed the sun to shine into that tomb even after the entrance had been blocked off. The entrance at Maes Howe was blocked off too, admittedly using a stone that was too short, and some have argued that this was to permit the continued entry of sunlight for a similar purpose, but this argument is controversial. And the alignment at Maes Howe is even less precise than that at Newgrange. Yet the fact that the alignment was imprecise does not mean that the tomb was badly constructed or unfit for its purpose. Some, indeed, have argued that the vagaries of the Orkney weather would have made this imprecision a necessity.

Yet to dwell too long on the precision of the alignment, or the actual interplay of sunlight within the tomb at or dates close to the solstice, may be missing the point. We may learn more of the purpose and meaning of the orientation of Maes Howe tomb by examining the archaeology of the living.

The Orkney Islands are rare in that they contain evidence of Neolithic settlements. One of these is the famous village at Skara Brae, with its stone houses huddled together as protection against the winds and weather, some containing still-visible central hearths and dressers made of stone. In the 1980s, excavations commenced at a newly discovered village at Barnhouse, only about one kilometer (one-half mile) from Maes Howe. They revealed a number of houses, cruciform in shape like the Maes Howe chamber, including a particularly large one remarkably similar in form to the nearby tomb. This discovery reinforces the oft-made suggestion that the design of tombs— houses for the dead—reflected that of houses for the living. One aspect of design is orientation, and tombs may well have echoed orientation practices common among houses for the living. In this way they did not only reflect what we would consider "practical" considerations; they also reflected principles that were symbolic or cosmological, though of no less importance to their builders. Such principles still operate among a number of modern indigenous peoples, good examples being the Navajo and Pawnee in the United States.

Neolithic houses in Orkney are characterized by a remarkable consistency in their spatial arrangement. A square hearth is always located in the center, a stone dresser is always found against the wall opposite the door, and rectangular stone boxes, generally assumed to be beds, were placed against the side walls. This uniformity provides ample evidence that activities in these houses were, indeed, governed and strongly constrained by a consistent set of ordering principles. These principles no doubt derived from how people perceived and understood the world, and served in their minds to keep everyday life in tune with the cosmos.

Studies of the orientations of houses at Barnhouse, together with other Neolithic villages in Orkney, show a marked preference for entrances in the southeast. Given other similarities between houses for the living and houses for the dead, it comes as little surprise that the many chambered tombs in the area were oriented in the same direction, Maes Howe itself being an exception. However, in many cases, the only indication of the orientation of an excavated house is the orientation of the hearth, since all other features have disappeared. We can extrapolate the orientations of the walls, but we cannot tell which wall contained the entrance. When studied systematically, the hearth orientations—and hence the wall-directions—cluster broadly but quite unequivocally around the intercardinal directions; the cardinal directions themselves were avoided. The four wall-directions also cluster around the directions of sunrise and sunset at the solstices and may have been intended to be oriented upon them, but this is uncertain. It is clear, though, that one of the basic ordering principles of the cosmos, which constrained the orientation of houses and, by extrapolation, tombs, was a quartering de marcated by the cardinal directions. This quartering recalls the quadripartite cosmologies common among indigenous American peoples such as the Navajo and Pawnee.

Given this context, the solstitial alignment at Maes Howe should surely be interpreted not as an indicator of an illusory prehistoric calendar of supposed remarkable precision, but in a more modest way, as a particularly fine reflection of prevailing views of the cosmos. See also:

Cosmology; "Megalithic" Calendar; Solstitial Directions; Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).

Navajo Cosmology; Navajo Hogan; Newgrange; Pawnee Cosmology;

Pawnee Earth Lodge. Solstices.

References and further reading

Darvill, Timothy, and Caroline Malone, eds. Megaliths from Antiquity,

339-354. York: Antiquity Publications, 2003. Fraser, David. Land and Society in Neolithic Orkney (2 vols.). Oxford:

British Archaeological Reports (British Series, 117), 1983. Parker Pearson, Michael, and Colin Richards, eds. Architecture and Order:

Approaches to Social Space, 38-72. London: Routledge, 1994. Renfrew, Colin, ed. The Prehistory of Orkney (repr.), 83-117, 305-316.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990. Ritchie, Anna. Prehistoric Orkney. London: Batsford/Historic Scotland, 1995.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 129, 158. New

Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. Sampson, Ross, ed. The Social Archaeology of Houses, 111-124. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

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